I’m probably the only person on the planet who has not watched the series on Netflix – and, nerd that I am, I have read the book instead. But actually, I’m really glad I did.
Piper Kerman had just graduated Smith College and was unsure of her next step. As she drifted toward an older, cooler crowd, she found herself falling for Nora, an older woman who she perceived as quirky but sophisticated and who had set herself apart by making quite a bit of money – by coordinating drug runners. When Nora invited Piper to join her in Indonesia, Piper jumped at the opportunity and indulged in the opulent lifestyle that Nora’s business afforded them. When Nora asked Piper to transport money back into the States, Piper felt obligated to say yes, never thinking that years later, she’d be served papers that would charge her with a federal crime. After court appearances and delays, Piper was finally required to serve a 15 month sentence in federal prison. This book is the true story of her experience of that prison sentence in Danbury, CT.
Kerman writes about her experience with honesty, sadness, humor, and heart. She describes how she’s finally matured into a life – a successful job which she loves, an engagement to a man whom she adores and who adores her – and how painful it is to leave this behind. She writes of the guilt she has about the agony she knows she’s inflicting on her family because of what she’s done. And she writes about how even as horrific as this experience is for her, she is aware of how privileged she is as a well-to-do, educated, white woman with resources and a supportive family, which is vastly different from the experience of most of the women with whom she’s incarcerated. She describes so eloquently the bond which develops between her and so many of these other women because, at the end of the day, they are all in the same boat. They need each other to survive and those who understand this develop a mutual respect that underlies the kindnesses they show each other. It is these small kindnesses and empathy toward each other that help them to survive with their dignity and their sanity intact.
While this story is a few years old, it is still painfully relevant. Our penal system is woefully broken and unjust. Because of mandatory sentences on non-violent, drug-related crime, there are way too many people who are incarcerated for way too many years and a disproportionate number of these people are African-American and Latino. In addition, there is an inordinate emphasis on punishment rather than rehabilitation and education and this only perpetuates the problem. Piper never feels that she should not have been punished, but she does feel that there are random, myriad abuses of an inadequate system that she was witness to and that that need remediation.
I would highly recommend this book to others – and maybe I’ll watch some of the series now just to compare it to the book!